Scripture: MATTHEW 25:14-30
“We have good news and bad news,” said the preacher to the beloved congregation one Sunday morning. “The good news is that we have all the money we could ever want to support and enhance the ministries and missions of this fantastic church. The bad news is: it’s still in your pockets!”
My job today, as your pastor, is a simple and straightforward one: to remind us all that it is a wise and beautiful thing to take a good portion of the money that may still be in our pockets and offer it to God through Federated Church.
It’s counterintuitive in a way, isn’t it. We learn from a young age that we should save our money, that we should take in more than we spend, that we should make sure we always have enough. What if there should be a crisis? What if an emergency demands significant resources? We save for those emergencies. We invest in retirement plans so we’ll have enough to live on until we’re 101. When Mary and I first consulted a financial advisor a number of years ago, one of the first things she said to us was that our goal was to save enough so that our children didn’t have to support us in our old age. ‘You may be tempted, in your generosity,’ she said, ‘to give them sizable gifts now. Resist that urge,’ she said, ‘if it will compromise your savings and your ability to support yourself later.’
And while she’s right, of course, that this saving is ultimately for our children’s sake, as well as our own, it’s also true that her urging was consistent with the larger cultural message that encourages us to accumulate and to hold on tightly to what we make. Will we have enough? Will we be able to do what we want to do? So many of the messages we get tell us to cling to that money. But then, a monkey wrench gets thrown into that whole amassing way of thinking, and along comes your pastor to say: make sure you give away a good chunk of what you have.
Of course, this prodding from the pulpit isn’t just your pastor being idiosyncratic and counter-cultural and obtuse, though he is not beyond being any of those. This is your pastor passing on a word from Jesus. Give or die is Jesus’ word to us. Not that we’ll die literally, of course, but that our souls will shrivel away if we don’t make a real and distinct point to take a good portion of our money out of our pockets and contribute it to a cause, or causes, dear to the heart of God.
You know as well as I do that it’s as we invest in something larger than ourselves that our lives are most deepened and enriched. What gives our lives their character, their fullness, and really their deepest joy, is the ways in which we are able to extend ourselves and offer our resources and commit to something good and beautiful and just—to gather the often shattered shards of our shared lives and, in our committed giving, to make our lives, in a very real way, whole.
Commitment to something beyond ourselves is core to a full life. As the retired tennis star Martina Navratilova once pithily put it, “The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.” Dare I say that what God asks of us is that we be the pig!
In a story that Jesus tells, a master gives huge amounts of money—the equivalent of millions of dollars—to three servants. Two of the servants invest their money and double their holdings. The third servant takes no chances and buries the money. It’s hard to argue with this third servant’s prudence and pragmatism. But when the master returns, that third servant is consigned to a kind of hellish existence. “Get rid of this ‘play-it-safe’ who won’t go out on a limb,” says the master. “Throw him out into utter darkness” (Matthew 25:29-30, The Message).
This third servant is relegated to a dismal existence because of such a pronounced reluctance to take a risk, because of a conspicuous hesitancy to jump in with both feet, because of a patent unwillingness to be the proverbial pig and, with utter abandon, to dive in with Jesus.
There are lots of ways to dive in with Jesus, of course. But at least one of those ways is with our money, our resources. Sometimes people get irritated when the church talks about money, as though talking money somehow diverts us from what they imagine to be more spiritual matters. But we talk about money today, and to some extent every Sunday, because what we do with our money mattered so much to Jesus. Jesus talked more about money, if you can believe it, than he did about love. He was acutely aware of the role money plays in our psyches. So he made it clear that the way we dispose of our resources is deeply related to the health and wholeness of our souls. In Jesus’ eyes, we give because, if we don’t, we’re like the third servant who plays it safe and buries the treasure. We share our resources because, if we don’t, we wither and die. We commit because, if we don’t, we’re just superficially involved and we miss out on the core of life, which entails commitment and an investment of ourselves.
Commitment—of anything—is a funny thing. It takes time and energy, and from one angle it can seem incredibly draining. If you’re committed to playing an instrument, for example, it takes endless practice. If you’re committed to being an investment advisor, it takes a constant watching of the market. If you’re committed to being a spouse or a parent, it takes not just quality time, but quantity time—because, as we know, the quality emerges, so often, from the quantity.
From one angle, all this time and energy may feel depleting. I was never more exhausted than I was when Mary and I had infant sons who would sometimes cry for hours in the night. Going into their rooms again and again to soothe them sometimes took everything I had. I felt as though I would do anything to get them to stop crying so I could get some sleep. Why would anyone choose to do this demanding parenting thing?
From another angle, though, that time and energy are precisely what has filled me and thrilled me. I simply cannot imagine my life without our two sons, and now our daughter-in-law and two granddaughters. Our conversations about parenting and work and hobbies and health and what matters most are unsurpassed joys to me. We’re not just involved with each other. We’re committed to each other. And our shared commitment gives me life. What God invites of us this morning is that we make a not unrelated financial commitment to God, that we invest ourselves thoroughly and with abandon in this church of Jesus Christ. Because, while it unquestionably asks something of us, the rewards are priceless. And the benefits are beyond compare.
Years ago, I heard about a leader of a non-profit who was sometimes heard to say to potential donors: “We can spend your money better than you can.” It was an arresting line. It may not be literally true, of course. You and I, on our own, each spend our money in many worthwhile ways. We buy our food and pay our mortgages and purchase some special delights. If we pay only for what satisfies us, though, our lives are but paltry shells of existence. A full life entails giving. It entails giving generously. It entails commitment. And it entails committing to enterprises that make a palpable difference in the world.
Federated Church puts our money to a better use than arguably any other use to which we could put it. When you give to Federated, you support programs that are deeply transforming. The staff of this church is passionately devoted to conveying to the world the love of God. We shape our children, youth, and elders in that love. We administer with an eye to shining light in the world. We preach and teach and seek, in all ways, to embody a wildly counterintuitive gospel—that in losing is winning, in sacrifice is fulfillment, in death is life. We look, at every turn, for how we might stretch ourselves into the community, by knitting shawls and reverse trick-or-treating and sharing TLC with impoverished people at Christmas and delivering abundant meals to hungry people at Thanksgiving and offering a sanctuary for people who may have been rejected and despised and cast out.
Most recently we have collected coats, jackets, and winter clothes that went to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. Outreach workers for the coalition regularly visit the encampments of homeless people throughout the city. Because of our donations, these workers were able to pick up clothes to distribute every day. Federated members and friends collected 15 large plastic bags of warm clothes, over half of which were brand new. You and I can’t spend our money in a better way than that. This is holy stuff. It’s the stuff of God. It’s commitment. And it makes an incalculable difference.
So am I inviting us to give to a place that makes an immense difference in the world? You bet I am. I am inviting you to commit to the energy of God that infuses this church. I am inviting you to be part of a movement of generosity and justice, a movement of comfort and peace, a movement of exuberant joy and unbridled kindness and bottomless love. In so many ways, Federated Church can spend our money better than any of us can do it by ourselves. You know that old saw—people don’t give to organizations that have needs; they give to organizations that meet needs. That’s what Federated Church does: it meets countless needs, and in that passionate commitment, it conveys God’s love to this sometimes desperate world.
With all that has made 2020 such an enormous challenge, the presence of this church is even more of a blessing than usual. When we can’t congregate as we usually do, when tensions about mask-wearing cause unaccountable rifts, when people are suffering and dying of a rabid disease, the presence of this church is a soothing balm, a radiant blessing. This is where we are reminded that a risky and generous love is the way of God. This is where we are reminded that God will never forsake us. This is where we are reminded that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich). Who would we be without that at our heart? What would life be like if we didn’t hear that reminder again and again? Federated Church is a premier messenger of grace, a luminous embodiment of holy love. And it’s your commitment, my commitment, that makes it all possible.
Many of us in this culture have something of a love-hate relationship with our money. We certainly know what it offers us. At the same time, though, we may also suspect that it taints us in a strange way. Several years ago, in order “to understand the subconscious role of money in our lives, psychologist Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues carried out nine experiments during which they primed some participants with the idea of money. (An example of priming is using the word soup and then later asking someone what five items a household typically stocks in its pantry. People are more likely to include soup in the response if they have come across the word recently.)
“In one of Vohs’s experiments, people sat down at a computer to fill out a questionnaire. After six minutes, a screensaver appeared on some of the computers. Some participants saw images of money floating underwater, some saw fish swimming underwater, and others saw no screensaver at all. After the participants completed the questionnaires, each of them next set up two chairs: one for themselves and another for a second participant who would soon enter for a get-acquainted conversation.
“Those primed with the brief, subconscious image of money placed their chairs more than one foot farther apart, almost 50 percent farther apart than unprimed participants. The take-away: exposure to the mere image of money distances us physically [and I would add spiritually] from others, without our conscious awareness” (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/take-500-and-do-good-world). The score-keeping and anxiety we associate with money “moves our chairs farther apart.”
You know what you do today on Commitment Sunday and during the week to come, this time in which we state our Intention to Give? Today, and this week, with your promise to support this church with your commitment and your gift, you move those chairs closer together. You say, “This church has unsurpassed ways to spend my money.” You say, “I’m going to make the grace and love of God my top priority.” You say, “My giving is going to bless me, and it’s going to bless the world.” And as you give, in ways small and big, you save the world. You touch it with God’s sublime care. You infuse it with holiness. There is no better gift than that. So I invite you today and this week: move those chairs closer together. Give yourself to the stunning and grace-filled ways of God. And all shall indeed be well!